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In Memoriam: Jack Palance

By M.V. Moorehead

Dec. 2, 2006

One of the great entrances in movie history belongs to Jack Palance. In the 1953 George Stevens western Shane, Palance, as the heartless hired gun Wilson, ambles into town on a horse that’s walking, just walking, at an unhurried pace. He dismounts in front of a saloon, walks through the front door, and a moment later a little dog scurries discreetly out. Without a word, Wilson’s evil is established.

I once heard Palance claim that the reason for the horse’s plodding gait, which seems so oddly sinister, wasn’t simply an inspired choice by director Stevens. It was, rather, because Palance, who was born Volodymir Palahniuk in Pennsylvania coal mining country in 1919, had at that early point in his career no idea how to ride a horse, though he had led his employers to believe otherwise.

The script called for Wilson to come galloping into town, but when it became clear that Palance couldn’t manage this, Stevens simply had him walk in.

It’s a good tale whether or not it’s true, and Palance’s performance helps to make Shane one of the quintessential westerns. Palance, who died this month at 87, appeared in dozens of movies and, while by his own avowal most of them were junky potboilers, a few were first-rate. Even in the worst of them Palance himself was great—a commanding, gutsy presence capable of sly psychological complexity as well as grand-scale ham.

Shane earned him an Oscar nomination, but it was his second—he’d been nominated the previous year for the thriller Sudden Fear, in which he had appeared opposite Joan Crawford. It was almost 40 years later that he finally won his Oscar, for his self-parodying turn as Curly in the 1991 Billy Crystal comedy City Slickers, and it may be that Palance will be remembered more for his eccentric acceptance speech, in which he suddenly began doing one-handed push-ups, than for anything else.

But there was a lot to remember. Palance played villains, and the occasional tough, forbidding anti-hero, in a wide variety of films, ranging from period thrillers like Man in the Attic to hard-boiled dramas like I Died a Thousand Times and The Big Knife to westerns like The Professionals and Monte Walsh, to costumers like The Silver Chalice, Sign of the Pagan and Barabbas to war and gangster pictures. He even played Fidel Castro in the legendary bad-movie classic Che!

He was also active in television. As a kid, I was terrified by his vigorous portrayal of the title roles in a rousing Dan Curtis production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

A few years later, also for Curtis, he gave an excellent, baleful, even somewhat poignant performance in a 1973 TV production of Dracula. Perhaps no other actor was ever more ethnically suited to the role of the count—with his sharp-boned Eastern European face, Palance was a ringer for portraits of Vlad Tepes, the prince who was Dracula’s historical model.

In his later years, Palance was allowed to give the villainy a rest now and then and play kindly old-timers. My favorite of these latter-day roles was in the oddball 1987 comedy Bagdad Cafe. After you’ve watched Shane, you might want to check out his sunnier side in this film—sweet, funny and strikingly boyish as the gentle, flirtatious old Mr. Cox.

We lost another Hollywood luminary in recent weeks—director Robert Altman passed on at 82. This prolific orchestrator of overlapping, improvised dialogue delivered by huge and prestigious ensemble casts made some masterpieces, like M*A*S*H and Nashville, along with many artsy misfires. But it’s nice that he was able to finish his career on a lovely—if characteristically uneven—high note: the delightful film of A Prairie Home Companion, now available on DVD.


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